Sunday, May 30, 2010


Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day as a way to remember those who died in service to the United States of America. While there are various stories about the origins of Memorial Day, it appears that it was first officially observed on May 30, 1868 when flowers were placed on the graves at Arlington National Cemetery. Today, many Americans seem to have forgotten the original meaning of Memorial Day and see it more as the beginning of summer when swimming pools open, BBQ grills are flaring, and NASCAR is roaring.

While veterans groups and many cities and towns have parades and other events to honor our nation's war dead, in my opinion many of those events also glorify war itself. And while it is quite true that war can bring out the very best in individuals - bravery, courage, compassion, teamwork, loyalty - as Eugene Sledge writes in his incredible memoir, With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa 
War is brutish, inglorious, and a terrible waste.  Combat leaves an indelible mark on those who are forced to endure it.
With the Old Breed provided much of the background for HBO's production of The Pacific, a miniseries that followed the stories of Sledge, Robert Leckie, John Basilone and other Marines from Guadalcanal, through the bitter fighting in the little remembered Battle of Peleliu, across the bloody sands of Iwo Jima, through Okinawa's horrors. As (some of) the men return home they find themselves in a strange place within America, within their families, and within themselves.

I was reminded of my childhood questions to my own father, a WWII Army veteran who fought in the Battle of the Bulge and was among the first U.S. troops to meet the Russian troops advancing from the east. Questions that disclosed my own childish glorification of war. Questions that he refused to answer then by deflecting them to lighter moments of the Army life. Questions that will remain forever unanswered.

This Memorial Day, let us honor those who understood, "if the country is good enough to live in, it's good enough to fight for." But, let's not use Memorial Day to glorify war itself. Rather we should keep in mind the words of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman who said, "War is Hell." History books may talk of winners and losers, but in war there are only varying degrees of losers. Memorial Day should, in the words of Herman Wouk, author of War and Remembrance, remind us all that -
The beginning of the end of war lies in remembrance.

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